Anthony Bourdain, My Demons, and How Both Shaped Me

*This post discusses suicidal ideation and sexual abuse. If these themes are too triggering for you to engage with right now, feel free to close this window*

When I woke to the news that Anthony Bourdain was dead of suicide (and that’s how I woke to it–not that he had “passed” or he was “no longer with us”), I began to shake. I hung up the phone (my husband told me). I went into the living room to tell my mother (I was lucky not to be alone). I cried.

I cried as if I’d heard this news about someone I’d known personally, because I felt like I had. The way he shared himself through his work made you feel like you did know him. And his work was presented the way it was so you’d feel like you knew other people too–people who were different from you. People you may never have come across in any other way.

When he came to Philadelphia to shoot an episode of The Layover, I got a hot tip from a fellow restaurant colleague that he was in the city. They couldn’t tell me where he was, only that he was dining with one of Philly’s top restaurateurs. I divined the right one, but the wrong restaurant–I sat on a stoop across from that great establishment for over an hour, waiting for a glimpse and hoping to follow him to his next destination.

Why? He spoke to something deep in my soul about the importance of meeting folks in the middle and sharing something simple to bond over. He seemed to share my belief in the transformative power of travel and the radical ripple-effect of stepping outside of your world to experience a new one.

And he’d overcome something that myself and so many of my loved ones struggle with: depression. Addiction. Emptiness. If, twenty years after finding fame and purpose and adventure, he’d succumbed to those demons, it meant that no one I loved was safe. It meant that his end was, and is, a possibility for those I care most deeply about.

I remember the year when my depression got full hold of me and took me to a place I’d never wanted to travel to. I was determined to find the answer to the riddle of the universe as if finding this answer would finally give me the purpose I needed to make life worthwhile. I poured through existential and post-modern texts like a hungry ghost, hoping to piece together abstract ideas into some discernible whole. I made graphs and charts and concluded that the universe was shaped like a donut ( I discovered that I wasn’t the first to conclude this and that my disregard for dark matter and dark energy had led me astray–an honest mistake). I wrote a term paper on Samuel Beckett’s work Lessness, and it prompted my professor to reach out to me to ask if I was okay. I love that she stressed I’d be getting an “A” before asking, somehow knowing that that was more important to me than my mental health at the time. I lied and said I was okay. I lied to everyone. I was so ashamed of my depression that I’d risk my very being to keep it hidden. I told myself that with the world in the state that it was, depression was actually a rational response.  But when you’re dealing with depression, rationality all but breaks down. I was clinging to the illusion of it because I needed sense like the starving need food.

I remember the morning I finally thought about killing myself. I was maniacally doing yoga in my kitchen (hoping it would work, willing it would work) when I wondered what a knife tip would feel like lightly resting on my sternum. I decided to find out. When I looked down and saw what I was doing, I threw the knife into the sink and from that moment on, I began getting better.

I have an uncanny ability to walk a millimeter from the edge, decide I don’t like the view, and turn back. I’m grateful every day for my backwards turning and how it’s served to protect me in every facet of my life.

There are some who, however, are willing to take the leap. It’s really all that separates us.

And I’ve always been drawn to those who walk that edge. Who allow themselves to wander that far into rough terrain and live to tell the tale. It’s my love of them, their beautiful spirit, their wild and fervent creativity, their deep capacity to feel that binds me to them. And I suppose that they too turn back when they reach that edge because I haven’t lost one yet. But I live knowing that it’s a possibility.

I’ve danced around the “why I started my tarot business” for two years now, and nothing I’ve said has been false. I have, however, left out a bit of the truth–my husband danced so close to that edge that he was institutionalized. See, life hadn’t been particularly kind to him. He hadn’t gotten the help he needed when he needed it because of stigma, because of ignorance, because of his family’s overwhelming wish that what had happened to him had never happened to him and their overwhelming desire for the pain of what had happened to him to go away (he was sexually abused. For years).

But ignoring and pretending didn’t make it go away. In fact, it ensured that it kept happening right under everyone’s noses. Rather than choose the hard road of recovery, they chose ignorance, and to his detriment.

This is what happens when we ignore the truth–pain persists. Nothing changes. Nothing’s healed. The damage keeps being done, and its repercussions span generations.”This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends: not with a bang, but a whisper.”

Or a silence, more accurately.

I didn’t want anyone to continue struggling alone. I wanted to lend my body, my energy, my mind, to the task of healing people, if only in the smallest way. Because if I could heal them, maybe I could heal him. Because if I could heal him, maybe I could heal myself. Because if I could heal myself, maybe I could heal everyone, and maybe we’d all feel a little less alone.

If this year has shown me anything, it’s that the silence can indeed be broken–folks everywhere are speaking out about sexual abuse, racism, gun reform, and mental illness. To inform. To create change. To end the stigma so there are more chances and opportunities to heal. And people are feeling a lot of things, including a little less alone.

This mass vocalization gives me hope. It creates an environment where it’s okay to ask for help. Where being sick isn’t something to be ashamed of. Where being oppressed isn’t something to be endured. Where being mistreated isn’t something to be tolerated. If the culture that exists today had existed a decade ago, I may have been empowered to say “I’m not okay.” Since the rise of the #metoo movement and the proliferation of a serious conversation about mental health, I’ve seen my husband’s demeanor shift–he thought he was alone for so long, and now that he knows that he isn’t, he’s better able to accept what happened and to welcome healing.

What we need now more than anything else is the love and support of our families and communities. For folks to care enough about the wellbeing of others that they can spend an afternoon listening to the hard stuff and being there in the way a person needs them to be there. Even though it hurts, what we need right now is what we’ve always needed–a safe space to speak our truth. And I don’t know if that can save everyone, but it can save a few, and that’s worth it.

So Much Love and All the Support,







4 Replies to “Anthony Bourdain, My Demons, and How Both Shaped Me”

  1. Jessi – Love you, dear – what a deep wisdom you have at such a tender age. I am soon to be 68 and I marvel at the depth of perception of the young today – that did not really exist when I was growing up. We pushed our boundaries, but the depth is still to be found. I found it, in your article, today, amid the detritus of world events and the supposed shallowness of that world and the people in it. HOWEVER – at the same time there is this stregnth of person and experience so evidenced by you and more of those of your generation and younger. I am sharing this on my FB page, where all of us “oldsters” hang out these days. You are a gift to the world as it is changing. Thank you for being here.

    1. Suzanne–thank you so much for your kind and generous words. Truly–they’re moving, and make me so deeply happy. Thank you so much for sharing, and much love to you <3

  2. Wow Jessi, your words fill my heart. Such beautiful, raw honesty, thank you for sharing and for normalising issues with mental health ❤️

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